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Welcome Home: Refugees Discover a Beacon of Hope in Utah

The Syrian refugee crisis has been called one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises since World War II. It has forced millions to abandon their communities and homes, losing everything they know—including the devastating loss of too many loved ones.

Images of children, women and men desperately fleeing their countries in search of a safe home have ignited worldwide fury. In response, the United States is increasing the number of refugees it admits from 70,000 to 85,000 in 2016 and 100,000 in 2017.

Deb Coffey, executive director of the Utah Refugee Center and Granite Refugee Center, says the increase is essential to helping solve this worldwide humanitarian crisis, “but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Syria is bringing worldwide attention to the problem, but there are other countries who have fleeing refugees facing the same threats. This is a huge crisis.”
Refugees have a slim chance of being selected to resettle into the United States—less than 1 percent of refugees are given the life-changing opportunity to move here. Out of those who are selected, Utah welcomes 1,000 to 1,200 refugees each year—a number that is expected to rise to 1,500 by 2017. Though it’s only a drop in the bucket, the role Utah plays in this worldwide humanitarian crisis is critical to the refugees and their families who now—or will one day—call Utah home.

A Second Chance

Coffey says it’s important to note that refugees are not immigrants. While immigrants choose to leave their country in search of greater opportunity, refugees have no choice—their lives are in danger. Many flee their country only to spend years living in a refugee camp. And those camps all too often become home to second- and third-generation refugees.
“Refugees are people who have survived persecution and managed to get out of their countries alive,” says Gerald Brown, executive director of the Utah Refugee Service Office (RSO), a division of the Department of Workforce Services. “They are survivors.”

Separated from everything they know, refugees step off of an airplane and into a new world—a world of opportunity. Their lives and the generations that follow will never be the same. The mix of emotions is powerful, says Coffey.

“They’ve got hope. They’ve got excitement. They’ve got joy. But those feelings are also coupled with extreme fear,” she says.
Women and children make up 70 percent of Utah’s refugees, which adds another level of complexity. “They are largely single mothers or mothers without a spouse—their spouse has either been killed or displaced due to persecution. Many may not know where their spouse is,” Coffey says. “They’re not only having to transition into a new life in Salt Lake City, but it’s also as a single parent. Those situations bring new challenges.”

Utah is home to many organizations devoted to assisting refugees along their path to a new life. Once in Utah, refugees are greeted by caseworkers from a resettlement agency, either the Catholic Community Services of Utah or International Rescue Committee Salt Lake Regional Office. The resettlement agency provides housing, food stamps, basic hygiene and household supplies—much of which is donated from the community. Case workers help them learn English and acclimate to their new surroundings and culture. “There are so many things that they need to take in in such a limited, short period of time to become integrated into a new community. It’s very overwhelming,” says Coffey.

At the three-month mark, refugees are encouraged to begin working—an essential part of their long-term success. “They are here and they want to be part of everything that we do,” says Coffey. “There are a few unique challenges that they face, but if we all come together and support refugees through community and business outreach, then their success rate will skyrocket. It changes everything for them, and those are generational impacts.”

Finding Work

Finding life-sustaining employment is easier said than done for refugees—many can barely speak English. The RSO is the state’s primary office for helping refugees find lasting employment.

“Our new arrivals tend to need entry-level jobs, because of language barriers and cultural challenges. But those pay around $9 an hour, and that can be hard,” says Brown. “We need help with those kinds of jobs, but we also need jobs where they can pay the rent and support their family—around $16 an hour jobs. Those are the kinds of jobs we are trying to help refugees gain the capacity to move into.”

RSO serves as a liaison between employers and the refugee community. They conduct job and skills training, screen applicants and host job fairs. RSO job developers help refugees find stable work and, more importantly, keep it. “If there’s a problem, like with language or transportation, the job developer is there to help and take care of it,” says Brown.

RSO also recently opened the Refugee Education and Training Center, which will host job fairs and offer skills training programs. “We just started a vocational program on warehousing, and we expect that they’ll have the skills ready to be hired at the end,” says Brown.

He adds that while refugees may lack some basic skills in the beginning, they bring a wealth of value to an organization. “Refugees are people who waited years and years in camps before they were allowed to resettle. The lesson is that they are survivors and entrepreneurs. They have the characteristics of good employees. They tend to be very loyal. They work very hard because they understand what a privilege it is to be able to work and take care of themselves. They are the sort of employee that most businesses want.

“The other broad point is that the refugee experience is amazing—they show you what human beings are capable of doing,” Brown adds. “Refugees are the epitome of human resilience. Everybody, whether it’s a businessman or teacher, can benefit from working with them and hearing their stories.”

A Helping Hand

Refugee support extends far beyond finding a place to live and a job—it’s about becoming a part of the community. In July, the Granite Refugee Center opened its doors in South Salt Lake to provide an extra helping hand to Utah’s refugee community. “Our mission is to offer education, cultural and life skill opportunities for refugees living in Utah,” says Coffey.

Each week, the center welcomes refugees who receive and give trainings that focus on community culture, professional skills and development, and cultural preservation. Coffey says what makes the center unique is that it allows refugees to converse with other refugees from within their own community and who wholly understand what the other is experiencing.
“Refugees are so resilient and they really are the best people who understand the unique challenges that they face once they arrive here in Utah,” she says. “Giving them the proper support within their own community so they can solve problems within their own community is one of the best ways that we can be a supporting partner to the refugee community.”

Coffey adds that while learning Western culture is a key part to a refugee’s success, cultural preservation is just as important. “Imagine you grew up and were raised in your country and then you’re now finding yourself in a situation where you have to flee—you may completely detach yourself from all of your culture and history you’ve had your entire life. Having the opportunity to preserve their culture while here in Utah is really crucial. Not only is it crucial for the refugees and their families, but what a wonderful thing for us, as a welcoming community, that we can embrace and learn and understand from those who have had these experiences and can showcase their differences to us.”

Nothing, Coffey adds, is more rewarding than seeing a refugee become a part of our community. “To come from a different country, overcome persecution, and be welcomed into a wonderful state like ours—the story begins to writes itself.”

How your business can get involved:

  • Invite a refugee to speak to your business
  • Participate in professional and skills development programs
  • Attend a job fair and share information about your business
  • Hire a refugee
  • Make a financial donation
  • Organize a service project with your employees
  • Collect and donate welcoming packages, school supplies, coats and winter attire, nonperishable food items

For detailed information about how to help, email dcoffey@utahrefugee.org or call (801) 541-6240.